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SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST
30.5 x 20.7 x 2.2 cm
Early 16th century
Τhe saint stands on a low rock, turned three-quarters towards Christ who appears in bust and blessing within a gold-rayed, blue segment of heaven in the top right corner. The Forerunner has large, light brown wings with dense gold striations, turning to deep blue near the body. He wears a deep blue sheepskin (meloti) and a light brown himation swathed around his body. His bared right arm is raised towards Christ in a gesture of speech, while in his left hand he holds an open scroll with the inscription: ΟΡΑC OI(A) ΠΑCXOY/[CIN Ω] Θ(ΕΟ)Υ ΛΟΓΕ ΟΙ / ΠΤΑΙCMAT(ΩΝ) ΕΛΕΓ/ΧΟΙ ΤΩΝ [ΒΔΕΛΙΚΤ(ΕΩΝ)] / [ΕΛΕ]ΓΧΟΝ [ΚΑΙ] ΓΑΡ ΜΗ / ΦΕΡΩΝ ΗΡΩΔΗC / TETMH[ΚΕΝ ΙΔΟΥ] / ΤΗΝ Ε[ΜΗΝ] ΚΑΡ(ΑΝ) C(ΩΤ)ΕΡ (See, Word of God, what the censors of disgusting transgressions suffer. For see Saviour, Herod, unable to stand censure, cut off my head). Bottom left is an axe propped against a leafy tree and right is the saint’s nimbed, severed head within a precious, low-footed bowl. The landscape includes two low, steep, triangular rocky mountains of different height, left and right, as is common in many fifteenth-century icons of single, standing saints.1 The gold ground has been destroyed completely and previous conservation of the icon using fire has spoilt the original texture of the colours. As in other icons in the Collection (Cat. nos 7, 14, 15, 16, 17, 35, 45), traces of gold are preserved sporadically, being more distinct near the outlines of the rock and the figure of the saint, particularly below the hair and wings.
A later nominative inscription, Ο ΑΓ(IO)C IΩ(ΑΝΝΗC) O ΠΡΟΔΡΟΜ(ΟC), in black letters above the left wing, was removed in recent conservation. The saint’s face is modelled meticulously with close, dark brown brushstrokes and tiny white highlights, in a miniature vein (Fig. 50). The treatment of the drapery of the himation, with multiple overfolds in smaller geometric planes illumined by firm, off-white brushstrokes at the edges, is analogous. The shaggy blue fleece is likewise assiduously executed. The painter displays exceptional skill in applying the gold striations, which are dense and well-drawn on the wings, the segment of heaven, the tree trunk and the bowl.
‘The ascetic type of Saint John the Baptist, lean, haggard, tall, clad in the fleece, as portrayed here, from the sides, with the face turned three-quarters, with the characteristic flexure of the waist and knees, must have been removed from the scene of the Baptism. Also from the Baptism is the detail of the tree with the axe, symbolizing the Forerunner’s words: “And even no the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). However Saint John is never winged in the Baptism, whereas he is in frontal representations of him: “Behold the lamb of God”. The wings symbolize his role as Christ’s messenger, in accordance with Malachi’s prophecy (3:1), repeated in Matthew (11:10).’ Manolis Chatzidakis, 1945.
The earliest known representation of Saint John the Baptist with wings is at Arilje (1296/7),2 while the saint’s severed head in the vase features in the Palaeologan iconography of both the Beheading of Saint John and the Finding of his Head.3 The iconographic type of our icon constitutes a judicious combination of elements encountered in earlier representations of the saint, such as in two icons, of the twelfth and the thirteenth century, in Sinai,4 in the late fourteenth-century Munich psalter,5 and in two icons, of the fourteenth and the fifteenth century, in the Historical Museum, Moscow, in which he appears without wings, as in a Cretan icon in the Louvre.6 The type was crystallized by Angelos, as studies referring to the Cretan painter’s work have shown;7 the characteristics first registered in two signed icons of his now in the Byzantine Museum8 and the Malines Museum, Belgium,9 were diffused in a series of works from the fifteenth century onwards10 and subsequently adopted by the great Cretan-masters, such as Michael Damaskenos in an icon in Zakynthos,11 Emmanuel Lambardos in an icon in Corfu,12 Emmanuel Tzanes in an icon in the Canellopoulos Museum,13 Victor in a triptych in Sinai14 and in all probability Philotheos Skoufos in an icon in Paros.15
The text of the inscription is based on earlier related ones.16 It too was crystallized by Angelos and repeated exactly in later Cretan icons!17 Our icon reproduces the model established by Angelos exactly, excepting minor deviations in details such as the addition of a second tree in the landscape right and the absence of the long-handled cross that John normally holds on the gold ground — most probably due to the damage to the ground in this area.18 Stylistically, however, it bears little resemblance to the Palaeologan style of Angelos’s icons and is closer to later Cretan works of distinctly conservative character, such as Emmanuel Lambardos’s icon in Corfu, which is of about the same dimensions.19 Apart from the common iconographic type both works display the same miniature execution of the flesh and garments, though with notable variations in our icon where the drapery is less rigid. The close brushstrokes on the flesh and the restricted coloration in subdued tones in our icon contribute to the impression of a different workshop, closer to the art of the fifteenth century. The above traits Suggest that it predates Lambardos and was perhaps painted in the early sixteenth century.
Of significance for our icon’s inclusion in the early sixteenth-century workshops is comparison with a signed icon by the painter Stylianos ‘priest’ in the Paphos Museum, Cyprus,20 which possibly dates from around 1500 (Fig. 51). There the Forerunner is represented in the scene of the Beheading, with the same artistic characteristics and a similar miniature manner of rendering the flesh and the shagey blue fleece. Even closer to our icon is the sixteenth-century icon in the Hermitage,21 of the same iconography but smaller dimensions (24.8 x 17.8 cm) and in excellent condition. The quality of its execution and the dexterity in the almost miniature treatment of the flesh and garments, with firm drawing and brilliant colours, are comparable to those of our icon, with corresponding differentiations from the works by Lambardos. Although it is not possible to date these works with certainty, they reveal that the subject was adopted by accomplished painters distinguished for their excellent technique and proficiency at miniature rendering.
CONDITION Manolis Chatzidakis, 1945: ‘Icon painted on a walnut panel with fine gesso. The outlines incised lightly and stressed by a fine black line. In very good condition; only the gold ground has been erased completely, as well as the gold striations on the wings.’The gold ground of the icon was damaged in previous cleaning, the painted surface is in quite good condition and the gold striations on the wings are now clearly visible, after the recent conservation.
- 1. Cf. N. Chatzidakis 1983, 11.
2. Cf. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1976, 128.
3. Cf. Chatzidakis 1988, 90-91, figs 1-7.
4. Chatzidakis 1978, 90-91, figs 4-5.
5. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1976, 131, fig. 9.
6. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1976, 136, fig. 11. Vocotopoulos 1990, 78. Bizantij 1991, nos 53 and 112. Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no. 64, 415-416 (I. Kyzlasova).
7. See N. Chatzidakis 1983, 10 and 18.
8. N. Chatzidakis 1983, no. 2, 18. Acheimastou-Potamianou 1991, 105ff.
9. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1976. Th. Chatzidakis 1982, no. 2.
10. Lafontaine-Dosogne 1976. N. Chatzidakis 1983, nos 2 and 39; the catalogue is extended by Vocotopoulos 1990, 77-78 and Acheimastou-Potamianou 1991, 109, nn. 17-18. To it can be added early 16th-century icons in the Hermitage (Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no. 14 – Y. Piatnitsky) and a late 16th-century icon in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow (Icons of Cretan Art 1993, nos 64 and 88 – I. Kyslasova, O. Etinhof), as well as a 17th-century one in the Byzantine Museum, Athens (Treasures of Orthodoxy 1993, no. 16, 201 – M. Acheimastou-Potamianou).
11. Chatzidakis 1981, 313, 360. Byzantine and Posi-Byzantine Art 1986, no. 139, 135-136 (M. Chatzidakis).
12. Vocotopoulos 1990, no. 52, 77-78, fig. 171.
13. Ascribed by Drandakis, see Drandakis 1962, 126-127, pls 57-58.
14. Sinai 1990, 13Lff., fig. 101 (N. Drandakis).
15. Mitsani 1996, no. 13, 38.
16. See Lafontaine-Dosogne 1976, 142, 143.
17. N. Chatzidakis 1983, no. 2, 18.
18. In the icon by Angelos in the former Chatzidakis Collection, in the Byzantine Museum, as well as in other icons, the landscape includes a small partridge-wood pigeon; it is absent from the smaller icon of the same subject, in the Malines Museum, see Acheimastou-Potamianou 1991, 108ff.
19. Vocotopoulos 1990, no. 52, 77-78, fig. 171 (28.5 x 20.5 x 1.8 cm).
20. Papageorghiou 1991, fig. 99. A second signed work of miniature character by the painter Stylianos is the triptych that includes inter alia two scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist (N. Chatzidakis 1996 and Lumiéres de l’Orient 1996, no. 9, 50-51, fig. on p. 30).
21. Icons of Cretan Art 1993, no. 14 (Y. Piatnitsky).